“A Choice is always Ours”

Baccalaureate Sermon
Delivered May 16, 2004
John R. Claypool
Professor of Preaching, McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University

John R. Claypool
John R. Claypool

I would be untrue to the deepest part of myself if I did not let my first words be ones of deep gratitude for being given the privilege of sharing this weekend with each one of you. I am well aware of what an occasion like this means. It is filled with significance, with importance, and yes, there is even a dimension of mystery here. The symbol of that is that we have never quite decided finally what to call this kind of event. Sometimes we speak of it as a graduation, which is a metaphor that points to the past and accomplishments and achievements that are so significant. But at other times we speak of this same event as “a commencement,” which is a metaphor that points to the future. It reminds us that we are just beginning a journey and this is simply another milestone. However you choose to describe this event, I know that it has nuances of meaning to everyone of us in this room and I want to recognize that fact.

To you graduates, this is a significant milestone indeed. It represents years of effort, sacrifice, thought on your part, and you have every, every reason to be justly proud and satisfied on this day. To members of the extended family it has other meanings. None of us got to this place by ourselves. If it hadn’t been for the encouragement, the support, and the sacrifice of many, many others, we would not be where we are. We all stand on other people’s shoulders and so all you parents and extended family — I know you have a special sense of delight, perhaps a relief also, that this moment has come. And I am very, very sure that what this means to you is a very, very important thing.

To the members of this faculty and the staff at Wake Forest, it has yet a different significance. They have invested so much of themselves in the nurture of your lives, and so I know from having had the experience of teaching that there is a great, great sense of satisfaction. But when this day comes there is also a trace of grief because something that has been very meaningful is now coming to an end. This faculty has worked very hard to enlighten you and I am sure this day they are grateful for that opportunity.

For me personally this is a time of pure grace. When I was first invited to participate last fall, I had just been diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer called multiple myeloma. I thanked the person who was calling, but I said that I had no idea what kind of shape I was going to be in because I was facing a stem-cell transplant between that time and this event. To my great surprise Wake Forest was gracious enough to say, “We’ll simply take a chance. We will wait and hope.” As of last Wednesday I discovered that I am cancer-free. I have sacrificed my hair to the gods of chemotherapy. As you can tell, the exchange was certainly worth it.


Thank you. I am so, so honored and so grateful to be here. When Ronald Reagan was coming to the end of his presidency and his strength was already beginning to slip, he used to begin every speech by saying, “I’m not only glad to be here, I’m glad to be anywhere in this condition.” I can certainly identify with those words. Being asked to be a participant in this weekend is pure grace. I learned a long time ago that you don’t have to deserve something to appreciate it. In fact, the more you know you don’t deserve, the greater is the measure of your gratitude. So to President Hearn and to all of you at Wake Forest, I profess my deepest, deepest thanks for being able to be here and for also being invited to share in this most significant milestone in the life of all of us.

What I want to do in the next few minutes is not attempt to tell you something that you don’t already know. Wake Forest is far too enlightened a place for me to presume that I can come and give you a new truth. Rather, what I want to do is simply remind you of something that you already know, something you’ve heard again and again and something you have been taught, I am sure, at this great University. I simply want to remind you of something that we humans forget and neglect to our great peril.

What I want to remind you of is that you are the recipient of an incredible and exquisite gift. It’s the gift of freedom, the gift of choice, the ability to be a creative participant in this drama of existence in which you find yourself. I need to be very specific here. You are not absolutely and totally free. Here we are in a world we did not create. We are finite creatures. We are surrounded by immensities that we cannot begin to fathom and which we certainly cannot control. Therefore it would be very cruel for me to stand here before you this morning and say, “You, because of your freedom, are going to be the sole shapers of your future.” The truth is we live in a world where wondrous and yet monstrous things can happen. Tragedy is a possibility for every one of us. I agree with Frederick Buechner when he says, “Life tends to work all of us over before it’s done.” Therefore, I could not begin to say to you that the future that lies ahead of you is going to be nothing but pleasure and delight. There are immensities and forces that we do not control which means you are not absolutely completely free.

At the same time, however, I would remind you that you are genuinely free, free in the sense that though you can’t determine what happens to you circumstantially, you can determine how you are going to respond to those events. That is, you have the power to be able to be a responsive person and not just a passive victim. You have the power to decide what you are going to do with what life does to you, and this is a genuine potency.

Alfred Adler, the pioneering Swiss psychologist, used to love to tell the story about an intriguing encounter that took place at the main railway station in Vienna, Austria, in 1932. It seems that a well-dressed businessman got off a train and was walking through the crowded lobby. He was stopped by an alcoholic beggar who asked if he would give him enough money for his next meal. The well-dressed businessman said, “I don’t usually respond positively with this kind of request, but I am going to give you some money on one condition. Tell me, how did somebody who is as intelligent looking as you appear allow himself to get into such helpless dependency?” With that the beggar’s face reddened with anger and he said, “Listen, if you had had happen to you what has happened to me you wouldn’t be so judgmental.” He said, “I’ve never had a chance in life. My mother died when I was very young. My father was cruel and abusive. In fact, he got so bad that the authorities had to step in and take me and my brothers and sisters away from him. We were put in a state-run orphanage. We were living there when World War I broke out and one night the two armies came together right on the campus of our orphanage.” He said, “A firebomb hit the dormitory where I was living. All I could do was to flee into the night with nothing but the clothes on my back. I’ve never seen my brothers and sisters again. This is the way it has been all of my life. As soon as I get on my feet, circumstances knock me to the ground. The deck has always been stacked against me. If you had had happen to you what has happened to me, you wouldn’t be so pompous and so judgmental.”

The well-dressed businessman said, “It’s interesting that you should say that. As you tell me your story it roughly follows the outline of my own experience.” He said, “My mother died when I was very young. My father was cruel and abusive. I was taken by the authorities with my brothers and sisters, away from him, to live in an orphanage and I was living there when World War I happened. A battle came up on our campus. I, too, had to flee into the night.” But, he said, “I always felt like I had something in me that could answer back to the events that were happening. I always felt like there was something I could say to what the eventualities were doing for me.” The two continued to talk and as you have probably already anticipated, what they discovered to their amazement was that they were, in fact, blood brothers, separated fifteen years before by the accidents of war. Now by some mysterious providence they had been brought back face to face.

Adler used to tell this story to raise one of life’s most incredible dilemmas; namely “Why do individuals respond so differently to the same set of circumstances?” Here were two people who had the same genetic background, who had been subject to the same circumstantial fate, and one had allowed those events to strip him of all potency and reduce him to dependency. The other, however, like a sailor tacking into the wind, had found a way to take the things that were going against him and to use them to propel himself forward.

It is a probing question, “Why is it that two individuals respond so differently to an identical set of circumstances?” Adler is not the only person to be puzzled by that profound mystery. George Butterick once mused to himself, “Why is it that the same sun melts the wax and hardens the clay?” Ogden Nash has a famous couplet. “Two humans look through the self-same bars. One saw mud, the other stars.” There are two pair of eyes looking out on the same situation. One pair of eyes gravitates down to the lowest and the grimiest of the dimensions there and the other pair of eyes chooses to look up to the sublime and to the beauty above.

Why do individuals respond so differently to the events of their lives? The technical answer is what I want to remind you of this morning. It is the capacity given to us at the moment of our conception, the capacity to choose, the capacity to exercise energies of our own and to take what life does to us and answer back out of the deepest reaches of our own uniqueness.

The Old Testament scripture that I had read this morning comes from the oldest of the creation narratives. It points out that among other things, our earliest forebearers were given the privilege of naming the animals they encountered. Please notice, they did not create the animals. That came from another dimension of reality. But they were given the opportunity to decide what those entities were going to mean to them, how they would integrate them into their own lives. I see “the naming of the animals” as a symbol of this incredible gift that every one of us has received, which is not to be passive victims of the things that happen to us, but the power to interpret and to decide and to make responses of our own.

I once heard this illustrated as the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. Think about it. The thermometer is a reflective instrument. Whatever the temperature of the context in which it is set, that’s where the thermometer is going to come to rest. It is simply reflective of the situation about it. A thermostat is different. It contains a thermometer because every action has to begin with an awareness of the realities about you, but it also has another mechanism, the tentacles to inject something of its own into the atmosphere and therefore make a genuine difference.

What I want to remind you of this morning is that you are thermostatic creatures and not thermometric. You have within you the freedom to decide how you’re going to respond to the circumstances of your life.

Let me repeat what Adler was trying to say. This is a tremendous potency. It can make all the difference in the world in the shaping of your experience. The Puritan poet, John Milton, realized this fact. In fact, in one of his writings he says, “The human spirit is so powerful that it can make a Hell of Heaven or a Heaven of Hell.” That is a tremendous double affirmation and I honestly believe that it is true to the very nature of this mystery in which we find ourselves. With the power of choice, you and I can take circumstances that are inherently positive and could be the bearers of great joy, and with neurotic dissatisfaction turn those positive conditions into a hellish situation.

Winston Churchill used to tell about a British family that went out one Sunday afternoon to picnic by a lake. While they were there the three-year-old son got away from them and inadvertently fell into the lake. The child did not know how to swim and so he began to cry out in great panic. Well, it turned out that none of the adults had any skills in water safety and they certainly didn’t know how to rescue somebody in the water. They are standing on the bank, ringing their hands and crying out in terror. A passerby quickly sized up the situation and in great, great danger to his own physical health, he dives in fully clothed, manages to get to the little boy just before he goes under the third time, and has strength enough to swim back to the shore and presents him to his mother, frightened of course, but quite well intact. This was a marvelous, marvelous intervention of rescue. Do you know what the mother said first to this man who had done this heroic act? She said peevishly, “Where’s Johnny’s cap?” In other words, in all of the things that had happened, somehow the child’s headgear had gotten lost and of all the facets in this event, that’s the thing she chose to focus on. I think that is an illustration of how we have the power to make a Hell of Heaven.

Churchill said that this was the plight of so much of political life … that you do again and again things hopefully to help people and they wind up saying, “Where is Johnny’s cap?” They wind up finding something wrong with it. Truth be told, you have the power to take the best of circumstances and to reduce them to occasions of misery that is part of this potency that we possess. However, it is also true you have the ability to make a Heaven out of Hell.

I had a minister friend in Texas who told me once about a family in his parish. He said they were intelligent, loving, generous people. They lavished delight on the three children that had been born into their lives. When the word came that a fourth child was going to be born into that circle of love, everybody in the family was delighted. They all went to the hospital together the night the mother was to deliver. They waited excitedly in the room outside the delivery place. After a few hours the doctor comes out and said to the father, “Congratulations, you have a new daughter.” He said to the siblings, “You have a new sister.” He said, “This baby born is perfect in every way except one. For reasons I cannot account for, this child has been born with no arms and no legs. It is a genetic abnormality for which I have no explanation.”

Of course, initially the family was stunned. Nobody had expected this kind of handicap. Yet, my minister friend said that they were the kind of people who, instead of spending all of their energies wallowing in self-pity and saying, “Why us? Why this injustice?” they very quickly moved to the question, “What can we do now that this has happened, not just to make the best of it, but to make the most of it?” He said very quickly a resolve formed in that whole family system that every one of them would do everything he or she possibly could to give advantages to this girl who had been born so tragically handicapped.

My minister friend said that she lived to be 21-years of age and turned out to be an exquisite human being. She had a brilliant mind and through home-schooling she became very, very erudite. He said to spend an evening in her presence was sheer delight because she was so bright and so well informed. He said she was also very mature and loving in her temperament, yet never in her 21 years did she ever move herself, feed herself, or do any of the things that most of us normal folk just take for granted as a matter of course.

About three months before she died in her 21st year, an older brother of hers came home from college at Easter break and he brought with him his roommate. I need to tell you two things about this person. First of all, he was a sophomore, which meant he knew more than he would ever know in his life. That tends to be the apex of adolescent arrogance. Secondly, he was a philosophy major, which anyway you measure, it is a strange breed. I can say that because I was one five decades ago at Baylor. Philosophy majors, as you may know, tend to put life under a tremendous magnifying glass and are especially sensitive to any whiff of injustice. They used to laughingly say at Baylor that you could always tell a philosophy major; because when he or she met you on the campus, instead of saying, “How are you?” they would narrow their eyes and say, “Why are you?” and would wait for some ontological answer.

This sophomore philosophy major spent a weekend observing the kind of life that this handicapped girl was called on to live. As he was leaving on Sunday afternoon, he said to her, “What keeps you from blowing up in rage at the kind of God that would let you be born so handicapped? If I were you I would live with my fist in the face of the Almighty. I would never stop saying that it’s not fair, it’s not right, it’s not just. How can you stand the thing that has been done to you?” My minister friend said that that girl looked that lad level in the eye and said, “Listen, I realize when compared to what most people have, what I have may not seem like much but I have been able to see and because of my family I have looked on some of the great, great beauties of this country and magnificent pieces of art. I have been able to hear. And again because of my family I have participated in wonderful conversations and listened to magnificent music. I have been able to think and to learn and I have discovered wonderful, wonderful truths. I have been able to smell. I have been able to taste. I have been able to feel. I realize when compared to what most people have, what I have may not seem like much. But, listen, compared to never getting to be at all, I wouldn’t have missed being born for anything.”

Where did she get the courage to pick up that kind of circumstantial hand and play it with such relish? She realized that she had been given the gift of choice. She realized that though she could not control what had happened to her she could have a measure of control on the way that she responded. My own guess is that she was moved to exercise that gift of choice in such an incredible way because somebody had let her in on what to me was the greatest single secret of the world … that is that life is a gift, that birth is windfall. What did any of us do to earn our way into existence? What did we do that called us out of nothing into being? Truth be told, all of us are here because of the generosity of the Holy One. All of us have been given something that we did not earn and do not deserve. If a sense of cosmic gratitude and a sense of wonder at simply being born into this world comes over you, then getting to be in the game of life is of such an incredible value that it transcends whatever kind of circumstantial hand we might have been dealt. My guess is that the realization that life is a gift and birth is windfall is where we get the motivation to take this incredible gift of freedom and to use it to make a Heaven of Hell rather than to make a Hell of Heaven.

Therefore, this morning my one word to you is not new. You’ve heard this all your lives. You’ve been taught this here. You know it already but we forget this, my friends, at great peril to our joy. You are the recipient of the gift of freedom. A choice is always yours. And remembering that can be one of the great resources you take with you to the next chapter of your life.

Back in 1965, Winston Churchill was invited to give the graduation address at a college in middle England. He, by this time, was very advanced in age. In fact, just three months after this occasion he ended the earthly part of his life. They tell me that the day he was to give the commencement address he was so infirmed physically that he had to be helped up to podium. He held on to it as if he was not even going to be able to stand. He stood there silently for quite a while and the people wondered if he was going to have strength enough to say anything. Then, at last, that great lion’s head was lifted and the voice that had called England back from the brink twenty years before sounded for the last time in history. What he did was to look out on that sea of graduates, just as I am doing this morning, and to say with great feeling, “Never, never give up. Never give up.” With that he turned around and went back to his seat. Those there said it was an utterly electric moment. It was reflective of Churchill’s whole political career. This was the embodiment of what had characterized his entire life. Again and again he had experienced defeat, that there was resilience in him that always came back because of the gift of choice. Those there say it is the only commencement address in the history of humankind that is remembered verbatim, word for word. Usually words that are said at this time come quickly and go quickly, but that day they say as that grand old statesman made his last public acclamation, everybody there remembered what is one of the deepest of all truths.

Therefore, this morning as I salute you graduates, as I commend you for what you have already done, I also commend you to the future with the reminder, “You are not victims. You do not have to be passively, passively affected by what happens. You are thermostatic creatures. You have it in you to take what life does to you and do back that which is creative and that which is joy-producing. This morning I salute you and I remind you, because of who you are in your deepest identity … never, never, never give up. Amen

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2004 Baccalaureate Service